For the haftarah of Shabbat of Passover, we read a perplexing passage from Ezekiel. Ezekiel prophesied during the exile in Babylonia, a long way from Jerusalem. In this passage, Ezekiel seeks to give his fellow refugees hope of a return to their homeland. It is a haunting picture – Ezekiel describes a valley of dry bones that are resurrected, infused with life once again.
One could ask many questions about a passage as mysterious as this one, questions about death and the after-life and the nature of God. But the question that echoes for me this year: why do we read these prophetic words on the Shabbat during Passover?
One reason we read about the dry bones on Passover is reflected in a story from the Talmud. In this story, the bones in Ezekiel’s vision were the bones of the tribe of Ephraim who escaped Egypt before the Exodus. In the wilderness, the tribe was brutally murdered and God breathed new life into their bones. Once revived, the tribe settled in the land of Israel and had children and lived a vital Jewish life.
God saved the tribe of Ephraim just as God had saved the rest of the house of Israel during the Exodus. By reading about the valley of dry bones on Passover, we celebrate the rebirth of a dead people. By using this image, our tradition suggests something extraordinary about our world, that death is not death, and that what is good in this world can be reborn. Our God has created a world in which renewal is possible.
Once we see it, the theme of renewal keeps popping up during this holiday like the first crocus in spring. During these days, we read the Song of Songs, in which two young people sing to each other in a flourish of springtime love. As we grow older, we might become suspicious of love in any form, embittered by past hurt. By reading the Song of Songs each year, we feel the stirring of life within us; we feel the world fertile with possibility. We become those lovers again, eager to start life anew in this world.
During this holiday, we also traditionally say a special prayer for dew. Here’s another flowering of Passover’s emphasis on renewal. Without dew, our earth cannot replenish itself. Through this prayer we remind ourselves that during the wintertime, the world lies dormant, not dead. In gratitude, we see that the winter landscape has not been lifeless, but pulsing with life waiting to burst forth. This prayer is a testimony to the power of renewal in the world around us.
Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones is also a challenge to us to look at the dry bones in our own lives. What has died for us that we have the power to revive? Maybe there is a relationship that needs repairing. Passover entreats us to see that no relationship is beyond some form of repair. Maybe there is an emotion that we never thought we would experience again – joy, wonder, passion. Passover reminds us that our own souls are brimming with untapped vitality and feelings. Maybe there is a dream that we thought was dead. Passover asks us to remember that if the earth’s abundance can be revived from dormancy so too can our dreams.
We read Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones because we are not just celebrating our ancestors’ liberation from slavery. We are also celebrating our belief in our own renewal. After a long gray winter, we step outside during Passover and see the bright green of new leaves, and blossoms beginning to open, and we realize, yes, the world has not been dead, just dormant, just waiting to renew itself. As our ancestors left the dark bondage of Egypt, we realize that we can leave the dry bones of our own lives behind. During Passover, we gain the courage to arise and awaken and see everything, including ourselves, anew.